Toward an Anti-Racist Post-Tonal Analysis

Steve Rings in class teaching


By Daniel Meyers

“Ivory Tower” is not a new phrase for academia, but as racism and racial injustice have again surfaced in the public and social conscious, the racial allusions of the phrase and its implications for education and scholarship have become more evident. A recent Pew Research study found that only 24% of faculty of postsecondary institutions in the United States in 2017 identified as non-white, and only 19% of fully tenured professors identified as such. At the University of Chicago, the Final Report of the Diversity and Advisory Council, published in the same year, reported that only 6.1% of the University’s faculty were members of groups designated as underrepresented minorities (Black, Hispanic, Native American), compared to 11.5% in the Pew study.

The chalky complexion of the Ivory Tower reflects more than the faculty and students within, but the curriculum and scholarship produced and circulated inside as well. Disciplines, including music, are beginning to reckon with a history of racism and white supremacy in their fields, and some students and faculty are beginning to explore what anti-racist curricula and research would look like. One example of that in the Department of Music is Associate Professor Steven Rings’s fall 2020 section of MUSI 31300: Analysis of 20th Century Music.

Over the last few years, Rings has progressively added music by Black composers to his syllabi for Analysis of 20th Century Music. Recent presentations at the 2019 Society for Music Theory annual meeting and articles published in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, as well as the killings of Black people and the treatment of protesters at the demonstrations that followed, however, have put that shift on the front burner.

While Rings understands that scholarship and music theory curricula alone won’t change the persistent racism that impacts people on a daily basis, he recognizes that it is an important step in intervening in a culture and history of whiteness, both in musicology and academia, and in society at large. “The kinds of culture we study and how we study them matter,” he explains. “By changing the focus and changing our modes of representation, we are working to make opaque to us what was transparent before, which is a kind of unmarked whiteness.”

“The kinds of culture we study and how we study them matter. By changing the focus and changing our modes of representation, we are working to make opaque to us what was transparent before, which is a kind of unmarked whiteness.”

Recognizing, labeling, and understanding whiteness is an important part of anti-racist work, as elucidated by scholars and organizers like Ibram X. Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo and others. This means going beyond simply including music by Black composers on syllabi and critically examining traditional modes of post-tonal analysis. In most post-tonal analysis courses, which tend to focus on music of the early 20th century and the Second Viennese School, the goal is for students to acquire fluency with a well-defined set of analytical skills. These skills are not typically suited to analyzing music by Black composers, even music that would appropriately be considered avant-garde, in league with that of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Thus, music by Black composers gets left out of curricula, which has downstream effects on what and how certain musics are valued in the academy and elite performance spaces.

“How we think makes a difference,” says Rings, “and the kinds of texts we study and how we study them has material effects in the world, in how we interact with others. Among other things, it influences the kinds of musics that we present and support financially. Changing curricula also influences what students might teach in courses elsewhere, extending the network.” It is not just a matter of representation, but a critical examination of ways of thinking in music. There is much that goes “unthought,” as Rings puts it, when limited to dominant (and white) modes of analysis. “Because we don’t have any intellectual tradition for it, we don’t think it. Because we don’t think it, it does not get valued.” That is what he hopes to change in this iteration of his course.

Re-envisioning Post-Tonal Analysis

In developing his syllabus, Rings consulted with Marc Hannaford at the University of Michigan and Paul Steinbeck at Washington University in St. Louis, two scholars who work closely with the music and musicians that have come out of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (or AACM). (In our interview, Rings commented “this is the first time I’ve ever cited anyone on a syllabus!”)

The repertoire for the course focuses exclusively on music of the “Black radical tradition”—as philosopher, poet, and scholar Fred Moten dubs it—including music by Albert Ayler, Renée Baker, Alice Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Nicole Mitchell, Ornette Coleman, Matana Roberts, and others. This music has often been described as jazz or free jazz, but, as Rings notes, these labels often serve to sequester Black experimental music from elite white traditions. In addition to the repertoire, Rings has assigned readings that require his students to engage with critical race theory and new epistemologies of music. Whereas his typical goal for this course is skill acquisition, this quarter, he aims to foster a self-awareness of what it means to theorize around music. “[Professor Rings] is having us read writers that are themselves deeply steeped in the tradition of Black experimental music,” says student Audrey Slote. “They’re really philosophizing on the creation of music.”

Nicole Mitchell, which a bright yellow headscarf and yellow patterned dress, holds a flute
Renée Baker, dressed in black, stands on the conductors podium, arms outstretched, holding a baton, with audience in the background
Caption: Flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell (left) and composer Renée Baker (right), two composers featured in Rings's syllabus, are both making virtual visits to the class.

Pitch class set (pc set) theory, usually the core of a post-tonal course, has been condensed to two weeks on Rings’ syllabus. Throughout the rest of the quarter, Rings and his class are exploring timbre, texture, gesture, process, improvisation—elements that pc set theory and other traditional analytical frameworks are not equipped to address.

Traditional music theory is rooted in two elements: pitch and time (or rhythm)—the x and y coordinates of music theory, as Rings puts it. As a result, important elements of music such as timbre, improvisation, and process are not explored, and Black avant-garde music—much of which is not composed or notated and in which pitch and rhythm are not always distinct—has gone unresearched, “unthought.” This is not simply a failure of traditional analytical tools. It is a part of a self-reinforcing cycle: mostly white academics choose what music to study and teach, privileging certain traditions above others. Students become experts in those traditions (often at the exclusion of others) and go on to serve as the next generation of academics. Radical Black music, which largely developed outside of the academy, remains outside.

In order to begin expanding the frame of his course, Rings turned first to sound. “Our primary texts in the course are not scores, they’re recordings… Centering sound ends up being quite a shift for music theory.” This strategy resonates with student Slote, a classical cellist whose past research has engaged with topics as divergent as Mahler and Janelle Monáe. “The method of analysis has to come from the music. It’s not enough to just bring in new repertoire and use the same tools. These methods of analysis are not neutral; they have things that they are looking for and things that they prize.”

“The method of analysis has to come from the music. It’s not enough to just bring in new repertoire and use the same tools. These methods of analysis are not neutral; they have things that they are looking for and things that they prize.”

That recognition—that every analysis tool has its biases and its blind spots—is one of the primary lessons Rings is working to impart. Pitch class set theory is just one tool in a toolbox. Rings and his students are adding to that kit with implements as specialized and technical as spectrograms and as simple as basic language (which, Rings says, is often an undervalued device in music theory). In the course’s final project, students will apply these tools and engage in another practice that resonates with some of the Black practices the students are studying, in which collaboration is highly valued, sometimes over and above the work of a single, authoritative composer. Rather than individually writing papers, everyone will work collaboratively on a group-authored project. Through reimagining the class as a sort of scholarly collective, Rings hopes to offer a counter to the tradition of the “heroic solo author,” which, he says, is still very much a facet of the humanities. By expanding the toolbox, critically examining the ways music is studied, and encouraging his students to work in new ways, Rings hopes to help uncover an anti-racist path for music theory for the future.

Beyond Post-Tonal Theory

In some regards, post-tonal theory may be the natural place to begin shepherding an anti-racist shift in music theory curricula. Post-tonal analysis in general welcomes much greater freedom with fewer agreed-upon rules for how notes are grouped together and analyzed. Contemporary music of many different traditions often requires tools other than pitch set theory to provide meaningful insights into a composition. “For some people who really enjoy this kind of analysis, it has this kind of sandbox feeling,” says Rings.

Perhaps this sandbox will provide an opportunity not only to develop tools for analyzing avant-garde music by non-white composers, but to devise new methods of analysis that open up musics from other cultures and other centuries for deeper exploration. Even tonal music from the 17th century to the present, some of the most explored music in history, may benefit from new analytical tools. Take timbre, for example: as a guitarist, Rings says that timbre or tone is one of the very first things he thinks about on his instrument, even before pitch or rhythm. Yet, its place in music analysis has been far below the latter two elements. Likewise, process and improvisation are not new to 20th century music. Theorists, though, have lacked appropriate tools for analyzing the ways they function, their role in a piece of music or a performance and how they impact the meaning of a work or the experience of a listener.

This, too, may be part of the project of anti-racism. Interrogating and deconstructing frameworks that inherently privilege one identity, culture, or tradition over others also frees the privileged tradition or identity of the confines of those frameworks. Slote suggests this may provide an opportunity to welcome the individual, personal, and human back into music theory. “There’s this idea [in music theory] of having an objective framework. Couched in that idea is a sort of neutralizing lens, saying ‘this is how it is.’ There’s so much erasure in that, both of listener, and of culture, and of creator, the specificity of people and their bodies and their cultures and their histories and their memories. All of that is so important in what music does for us… There are useful things to be gained by certain analytic methods, but it’s never the whole picture.” The Autumn Quarter 2020 section of Analysis of 20th Century Music at the University of Chicago may be the beginning of a path to a more expansive picture of music.